Wiggins, rookies step in as Kleinsasser mulls surgery

Friday, September 17th 2004, 8:20 pm
By: News On 6

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) _ Three Vikings backups will try to fill a big void Monday when Minnesota plays the Philadelphia Eagles without tight end Jim Kleinsasser, who is considering surgery to fix a knee injury that will keep him out of two games or more.

Kleinsasser, one of the league's premier blocking tight ends and a key player in the Vikings' fullback-free offense, has a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. While certain to miss the next two games, he would sit out the rest of the season if he opts for surgery.

Veteran Jermaine Wiggins and rookies Jeff Dugan and Richard Owens will have to fill in as the Vikings try to prevent the tight-end slot from becoming a weak link in their high-octane offense.

Wiggins, signed as a free agent from Carolina in the offseason, was expected to take on a prominent pass-catching role this season. But he suffered a shoulder injury in training camp and upset coaches with his cavalier attitude toward recovery and practice.

Coach Mike Tice hopes Kleinsasser's absence will push Wiggins to elevate his game.

``Jermaine came here in hopes that he could catch a lot of balls,'' Tice said Friday. ``Certainly with Jim being hurt now, (Wiggins) is going to get an opportunity over the next few weeks to get some balls in his direction.''

Dugan, a seventh-round draft pick out of Maryland, will handle the majority of Kleinsasser's lead-blocking assignments. Owens, who signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent, also will see action in select sets.

``Everybody's got to step up and pick up where we left off,'' Owens said. ``Just keep working _ that's all you can do.''

Kleinsasser, signed to a five-year, $15 million contract in March, injured his knee in Sunday's season opener against Dallas.

Trainers diagnosed the injury as a hyperextension, but an MRI on Monday revealed additional damage.

Trainers hope to reevaluate the injury next week after the swelling goes down and Kleinsasser regains a greater range of motion.

``I'm just keeping my hopes up that it'll come around, and my knee will be stable enough to come out and help my teammates,'' Kleinsasser said.

For now, the burden falls on the backups.

``It's sad to see something like that happen to a guy (Kleinsasser's) caliber,'' Wiggins said. ``But I think he knows as well as everybody else: when you play the sport we play, it's so violent that (an injury) is something that is going to happen.

``All you can do is hope it don't happen to you.''

INJURY UPDATE: Running back Moe Williams, who started in place of injured starter Michael Bennett last week, also will miss Monday's game to rest his sprained right ankle.

``I think we'll just plan to hold him out until next week, and just move forward with the rest of the gang,'' Tice said.

Onterrio Smith will start Monday. Rookie Mewelde Moore also will see action.

Bennett, out since Aug. 27 with a sprained knee, hopes to return for the Vikings' game Sept. 26 against Chicago.